Grapple Dog is an exhilarating, fast paced 2D platformer. Does it hold up against the big names in the genre? The Finger Guns Review.
The Super Mario Effect. Ever heard of it? If not, let me enlighten you (or quickly look up Mark Rober’s TED talk on it). In short, it’s an extremely interesting concept that’s derives from the lessons learnt from failure in the Super Mario games. As you’re probably aware, it’s a game that punishes, but also motivates. A game where the full joy is in the win and a life lost is a lesson learnt if it’s framed in the right way. The failings along the way don’t matter because there is such a thrill in learning to win, conquering the end and how that relates to stumbling in life.
Back in the gaming world however, Grapple Dog is so reminiscent of this feeling you get when something so seemingly cute, cuddly and graphically bright tricks you into a false sense of security before tripping you up. You miss the hole hidden under the carpet or the a route where you miss something twinkly and shiny. Needless to say, you’ll need The Super Mario Effect here…
See a Man About a Dog
The premise; Many, many hundreds of years ago, the people of Partash lived in hunger. A great inventor appeared and built devices and he was adored like a king. The inventor made plans to protect the land and scattered cosmic gadgets across the world where evil-doers should never be able to find them. Unfortunately, he was never seen again.
Now, without spoiling the plot (although I imagine you can probably guess), of course evil tries to find them! If the gadgets are found they could destroy the world. The player assumes the role of Pablo. A friendly, very conscientious dog who really has no business trying to save the world, but gives it a good go anyway, with the help of some friends who are rooting for him back home.
Not even five minutes into the game, and the script is immediately funny. This is a fact that remains throughout. Here’s a snippet of what made me cackle: “He’s really trying to destroy the world”, says one character, “Oh man, that sounds really stressful”. The satirical, sarcastic nature of the script makes Pablo and his charming friends fun and enjoyable to spend time with.
So off on the adventure you go: Your resident bird friend, a wise lady with a lot of knowledge about the world, allows you to take her boat to attempt to find these gadgets before ‘Null the Robot’ gets his metallic claws over them.
While on the boat, the world is displayed top down, showing you your journey to victory. Although they are not completely visible to the player from the get go, eventually different worlds and levels will emerge from the water as you complete each one in turn.
Each level gives you a run down of its contents and allows you to see your collectibles. Within each one you’ll find five gems, a bonus level token and two additional gems based on the amount oranges collected. Your progress against this is tracked in the overworld menu. There’s also a timer which signifies the player can do each level as a time trial. The game does tell you that time trials are not a required part of the game. So if they are not your thing they can be ignored, but it’s good to have the option for additional replayability.
The only initial weird feeling that kept getting me was the action button even on menu’s was the typical ‘back’ button for consoles and handhelds. You do get used to this, but then switching back to my PS5 I would just be exiting everything instead of selecting it.
Swinging into Action
When jumping into a level, you are thrown back into the mix of how platformers used to run and look in the 80’s and 90’s. Visually, Grapple Dog is all bright colours, cute cartoon styles and fuzzy cute friends to talk to and robots to smash. Each level is full of highlights of enemies, platforms and some secrets just to give you a taste of what is to come. You get a real sense of that old school Super Mario influence of the enemies on the ground, jumping on their heads and collecting coins. In Pablo’s case your collecting oranges. Why oranges? Vitamin C, of course. No, I actually have no idea! Can dogs even eat oranges? Who knows. I don’t (Ed – Yes, they can but in small quantities). Anyway, Pablo mostly travels by… you guessed it…Grappling. He is given this ability even before the first level so you can swing right into action like the Tarzan canine you are.
Players will need to reach the end of the level (obviously?) but before ringing the big bell to announce your finish you can explore the depths and heights of each environment to gather and collect gems, oranges and bonuses. Gems are important as at the end of each world, you will need a numbered amount of gems to be able to move onto the next. This is nicely tied in with the story, in regards to defeating robot signals. This unlocking of the new world will trigger a ‘boss level’.
The gems that are scattered incrementally and get harder to find, and there are many creative ways that you’ll have to use to be able to find them. Whether this be doubling backing on yourself, using blocks and poppable balloons to grapple to different heights, or simply giving your goat friend a carrot to move a block. It is very easy to be fooled that you will always see the gems you need to gather where as they’re actually hidden off the beaten track. It’s not uncommon to reach the end of a level and to realise you’ve missed a gem’s hiding place.
Although there is only one main route to finish the level, the game will take different routes before the finish to access hidden areas. Due to the nature of it being a side scrolling platformer, there will be many-a-time where you will find yourself at a crossroads. Wherever you go could lead to a fruitful gem, or a checkpoint where you may not be able to return back to your route. This is a pretty smart way to motivate the player to replay the level and find all the gems.
If you’re sick of looking for gems however and keep dying doing so, you can focus on collecting oranges. These will give you 2 potential gems to collect that can still add to your total.
Pablo’s movement in Grapple Dog feels so smooth and the animation so slick that it constantly put a smile on my face. The world is dynamic and responsive to this movement too, like running through cute dandelions that disperse across the background. To give a comparison, he movement feels almost Sonic-esque. Although Pablo isn’t spinning around, he certainly jumps and feels as agile as the spiky, blue hedgehog.
The movement isn’t the only Sonic inspired aspect of Grapple Dog either. In the left hand corner of the screen is a small paw print with each toe-bean depicting available damage that Pablo can take. Much like the famous hedgehog, as you collect oranges that number will go up. You can lose a few them should Pablo lose all his lives too.
The Bestest Boy
Jumping into Grapple Dog feels like a warm familiar hug. There was something in my jellies that told me not to get cocky, though…
That instinct was completely correct. While you’ll need fast reactions and tact, you’ll also need patience. By the time you’ve reached the second level which pulls no punches, you’ll know exactly how this game is going to play. The levels is maze like where going in any direction may not all may be fruitful.
Grappling from one platform to another, between saws, moving saws, timed platforms, invisible blocks, bouncing on polar bear heads. You name the platformer genre trope and it’s likely in this game. I was consistently impressed by the set pieces and obstacles Pablo can use to move and traverse around the levels. Everytime I thought I’d seen it all, a new obstacle came to either help or hinder.
Different worlds also invite different themes, fresh locations and a boat load of new enemies to kick in the butt. From sandy beaches to snowy peaks, there’s lots to look at and take in. What becomes exciting is when you start to notice the fine details and earn those real eureka moment. Walls that seemingly look like normal structure have you saying to yourself “Hey you… can… can I walk into you?… yes I can.. AHA!” before you walk through them to uncover a gem.
The boss levels are fun and tense. Again these reminded me of the battles between Sonic and Eggman. It’s clear some big hitters in the platformer genre were inspirations here. I’ve not completely finished the game due to needing more sneaky gems to get to one of the last worlds. There are six worlds in total but I’ve now encountered enough boss levels to be able to say that none of them feel boring, or uses the same obstacles for each world. Like the best in the genre, the levels leading up to the boss battle get you accustomed to a new mechanic or hazard before throwing them at you in the boss fight.
A Tick in the Neck
While I’d say that this game is a wonderful addition to the platformer genre, it still comes with its frustrations. I did notice at times when bouncing and landing, Pablo was not as smooth as he is when he runs around. He would land as if he was on ice and slip right off platforms. This obviously gets more frustrating when it’s in the more intense sections of the game.
There’s a little bug in the game too – You can explore the boat that you travel to the levels on. On that boat is a small mini game to play as a small diversion. No matter how I played this game though, I found it impossible to earn any points. It seemed really strange but hopefully this is a quick fix post launch.
Occasionally I had the odd freeze and occasionally, characters stopped moving. These are nothing a restart couldn’t fix, and I never lost progress. You can also restart back to checkpoint to ensure you’ll not have to replay those tricky sections again.
If intensity isn’t your thing, or the platforming gets too challenging, or it’s just not as accessible as you hoped Grapple Dog has some great accessibility options that still keep the game extremely enjoyable. You can choose to have infinite jumps so Pablo is not restricted in his movement. In normal play he can only double jump, but this feature will allow you to move across the map with ease and without fear of difficult, fast paced jumping and grappling sections.
The second accessibility feature allows for infinite lives. You will not have to worry about poor Pablo’s toe beans being injured. I chose to test this out during the last few worlds, and of man was this helpful. It felt like a whole new lease of life. I felt like I took more risks and the game was still just as fun and exciting to explore without the worry of being sent back to a checkpoint or losing oranges.
The only thing I guess I perhaps (wrongly) expected, was that collecting or finding these gadgets gave me an extra power per world. I feel that would have just maybe lifted this above many other games in the genre. Like I said, I am yet to completely finish the game. Although I am close, I can’t speak for what comes at the very end; Maybe the best is yet to come. However, I can say with confidence that I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have played and will continue to play to see what is next for Pablo. So long as you’re taking heed of the Super Mario Effect and learning from your failures, you’ll have a great time with this title. This game is hugely recommended for anyone that enjoys challenging platformers that want to feel a familiar atmosphere to some of the greats in the platforming genre.
Grapple Dog is an exhilarating, fast paced 2D platformer that feels like a familiar warm hug and a nod to platforming greats such as Sonic and Super Mario. While it doesn’t do anything especially new, the game never stops surprising with its mechanics and it’s a valiant addition to the genre.
Grapple Dog is available now on Nintendo Switch (review version) and PC.
Developer: Medallion Games
Publisher: Medallion Games, Super Rare Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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